I remember once going to dinner somewhere in deepest provincial France. Our sommelier, complimenting us (as they sometimes do) on our choice of wine, asked us whether we would like to have the red wine chambré, a quaint and rather lovely expression that means serving the wine at room temperature. ‘And how does that work?’ I asked, inquisitively. ‘I would place the bottle behind the radiator’, came the reply. A sudden feeling of terror overcame me as I imagined the fate that might have befallen this rather fine bottle of red.
Sadly, not all restaurants take proper care of their wines and most customers don’t seem to mind. I am forever asking slightly bemused wine waiters for an ice bucket for my bottle of Beaujolais, and, conversely, liberating whites and even sparkling wines from their icy prisons because getting the temperature wrong can spoil the pleasure of drinking.
What are the rules?
Rather than rules, I’d keep two or three things in mind when it comes to getting the temperature right. Cool temperatures accentuate acidity, bitterness and tannin, while scent and all the volatile elements in the wine open up as it gets warmer. Too warm and the wine becomes almost cooked, losing nuance and elegance. Too cold and all those wonderful smells and sensations of roundness won’t leap from the glass.
Note also that wines warm up quickly in the glass, especially in a dining room, or outside in warm weather. There’s nothing worse than tepid wine, so I prefer to start on the cooler side, especially in the summer.
A wine’s shortcomings tend to be revealed at warmer temperatures too. So, the worst examples of ‘wedding’ Prosecco should be served as cold as possible. If not, be sure to stand close to a flower bed for discreet disposal!
Degrees of accuracy
Personally, I don’t go around armed with a thermometer, so what follows is a rough guide to serving temperatures, bearing in mind that we are all different. As explained already, too cool is better than too warm as a cold glass of wine will quickly warm up in the cup of your hands if necessary. I am suddenly reminded of tasting new-vintage chenin blanc from tank in Anjou, in the Loire Valley, where the ambient temperature was below freezing and my hands almost too cold and wet to hold the glass – not exactly ideal for assessing quality!
Imagine a warm glass of your favourite soft drink or beer. Chances are it will be almost flat and not particularly pleasant as carbon dioxide dissipates more easily at higher temperatures. All sparkling drinks should be served cold, but not so cold that flavours are dumbed. 5°C to 10°C is about right. Top-quality Champagne, however, ought to be served a little warmer at around 9°C to 12°C.
Light and fresh, including sweet and semi-sweet wines
The basic rule is, the lighter or sweeter the wine, the cooler the serving temperature – around 5°C to 10°C sounds about right. For dry whites, the better the quality, the higher the ideal temperature, to allow more flavour to emerge in the glass. For sweeter wines, I prefer to serve one of my favourites, Moscato d’Asti, which is sweet, low in alcohol and slightly fizzy, well chilled at around 5°C, but top Sauternes should be served between, say, 8°C and 10°C so you can still taste it.
Fuller-bodied whites, including barrel-aged wines & some fortifieds
Broadly speaking, these should not be served below 10°C or above 14°C. This is often what I refer to as ‘cellar temperature’ and it also suits some fortified wines such as amontillado sherry and Madeira. Fino sherry, on the other hand, can be served colder and there's nothing like a glass of well-chilled manzanilla on a hot day.
Serve no cooler than cellar temperature.
May I have an ice bucket for the red please?
Like whites, lighter, poolside pinks should be well chilled but those with more body, such as Tavel from the Rhône, are better cool rather than chilled.
Lighter-bodied, fragrant reds
Reds can be just as refreshing as whites. Beaujolais, Bardolino and Lemberger are best served cool so don’t hesitate to chill in the fridge for half an hour or use an ice bucket to achieve cellar temperature: 10°C to 14°C.
Pinot noir, some Loire, Italian reds and some northern Rhônes
Wines of such delicacy where fragrance and red-fruit flavours are so important need careful handling – serve too warm and the magic simply disappears. Aim for the upper end of the cellar temperature scale, but no higher than 15°C.
Fuller bodied reds: Saint-Emilion, Rhône, Rioja, ‘big’ southern hemisphere reds, Vintage Port etc
These big wines, often with flavours of black fruit, olive and spice, need to express themselves properly. Some would say ‘room temperature’ but that would be before central heating! Don’t serve above 18°C, I’d say.
Finally, never hesitate to ask for an ice bucket in a restaurant, for reds as well as whites. Even if it’s just for a few minutes, a cooling-off period makes a big difference!
Read more on serving wine.